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Modern Mythology, a non-fiction book by Andrew Lang


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This excursus on 'The Fire-walk' has been introduced, as an occasion arose, less because of controversy about a neglected theme than for the purpose of giving something positive in a controversial treatise. For the same reason I take advantage of Mr. Max Muller's remarks on Yama, 'the first who died,' to offer a set of notes on myths of the Origin of Death. Yama, in our author's opinion, is 'the setting sun' (i. 45; ii. 563). Agni (Fire) is 'the first who was born;' as the other twin, Yama, he was also the first who died (ii. 568). As 'the setting sun he was the first instance of death.' Kuhn and others, judging from a passage in the Atharva Veda (xviii. 3, 13), have, however, inferred that Yama 'was really a human being and the first of mortals.' He is described in the Atharva as 'the gatherer of men, who died the first of mortals, who went forward the first to that world.' In the Atharva we read of 'reverence to Yama, to Death, who first approached the precipice, finding out the path for many.' 'The myth of Yama is perfectly intelligible, if we trace its roots back to the sun of evening' (ii. 573). Mr. Max Muller then proposes on this head 'to consult the traditions of real Naturvolker' (savages). The Harvey Islanders speak of dying as 'following the sun's track.' The Maoris talk of 'going down with the sun' (ii. 574). No more is said here about savage myths of 'the first who died.' I therefore offer some additions to the two instances in which savages use a poetical phrase connecting the sun's decline with man's death.


The Origin of Death

Civilised man in a scientific age would never invent a myth to account for 'God's great ordinance of death.' He regards it as a fact, obvious and necessarily universal; but his own children have not attained to his belief in death. The certainty and universality of death do not enter into the thoughts of our little ones.

For in the thought of immortality
Do children play about the flowery meads.

Now, there are still many childlike tribes of men who practically disbelieve in death. To them death is always a surprise and an accident--an unnecessary, irrelevant intrusion on the living world. 'Natural deaths are by many tribes regarded as supernatural,' says Dr. Tylor. These tribes have no conception of death as the inevitable, eventual obstruction and cessation of the powers of the bodily machine; the stopping of the pulses and processes of life by violence or decay or disease. To persons who regard Death thus, his intrusion into the world (for Death, of course, is thought to be a person) stands in great need of explanation. That explanation, as usual, is given in myths.


Death, regarded as Unnatural

But before studying these widely different myths, let us first establish the fact that death really is regarded as something non-natural and intrusive. The modern savage readily believes in and accounts in a scientific way for violent deaths. The spear or club breaks or crushes a hole in a man, and his soul flies out. But the deaths he disbelieves in are natural deaths. These he is obliged to explain as produced by some supernatural cause, generally the action of malevolent spirits impelled by witches. Thus the savage holds that, violence apart and the action of witches apart, man would even now be immortal. 'There are rude races of Australia and South America,' writes Dr. Tylor, {178} 'whose intense belief in witchcraft has led them to declare that if men were never bewitched, and never killed by violence, they would never die at all. Like the Australians, the Africans will inquire of their dead "what sorcerer slew them by his wicked arts."' 'The natives,' says Sir George Grey, speaking of the Australians, 'do not believe that there is such a thing as death from natural causes.' On the death of an Australian native from disease, a kind of magical coroner's inquest is held by the conjurers of the tribe, and the direction in which the wizard lives who slew the dead man is ascertained by the movements of worms and insects. The process is described at full length by Mr. Brough Smyth in his Aborigines of Victoria (i. 98-102). Turning from Australia to Hindustan, we find that the Puwarrees (according to Heber's narrative) attribute all natural deaths to a supernatural cause--namely, witchcraft. That is, the Puwarrees do not yet believe in the universality and necessity of Death. He is an intruder brought by magic arts into our living world. Again, in his Ethnology of Bengal (pp. 199, 200), Dalton tells us that the Hos (an aboriginal non-Aryan race) are of the same opinion as the Puwarrees. 'They hold that all disease in men or animals is attributable to one of two causes: the wrath of some evil spirit or the spell of some witch or sorcerer. These superstitions are common to all classes of the population of this province.' In the New Hebrides disease and death are caused, as Mr. Codrington found, by tamates, or ghosts. {179} In New Caledonia, according to Erskine, death is the result of witchcraft practised by members of a hostile tribe, for who would be so wicked as to bewitch his fellow-tribesman? The Andaman Islanders attribute all natural deaths to the supernatural influence of e rem chaugala, or to jurn-win, two spirits of the jungle and the sea. The death is avenged by the nearest relation of the deceased, who shoots arrows at the invisible enemy. The negroes of Central Africa entertain precisely similar ideas about the non-naturalness of death. Mr. Duff Macdonald, in Africana, writes: 'Every man who dies what we call a natural death is really killed by witches.' It is a far cry from the Blantyre Mission in Africa to the Eskimo of the frozen North; but so uniform is human nature in the lower races that the Eskimo precisely agree, as far as theories of death go, with the Africans, the aborigines of India, the Andaman Islanders, the Australians, and the rest. Dr. Rink {180a} found that 'sickness or death coming about in an accidental manner was always attributed to witchcraft, and it remains a question whether death on the whole was not originally accounted for as resulting from magic.' Pere Paul le Jeune, writing from Quebec in 1637, says of the Red Men: 'Je n'en voy mourir quasi aucun, qui ne pense estre ensorcele.' {180b} It is needless to show how these ideas survived into civilisation. Bishop Jewell, denouncing witches before Queen Elizabeth, was, so far, mentally on a level with the Eskimo and the Australian. The familiar and voluminous records of trials for witchcraft, whether at Salem or at Edinburgh, prove that all abnormal and unwonted deaths and diseases, in animals or in men, were explained by our ancestors as the results of supernatural mischief.

It has been made plain (and the proof might be enlarged to any extent) that the savage does not regard death as 'God's great ordinance,' universal and inevitable and natural. But, being curious and inquisitive, he cannot help asking himself, 'How did this terrible invader first enter a world where he now appears so often?' This is, properly speaking, a scientific question; but the savage answers it, not by collecting facts and generalising from them, but by inventing a myth. That is his invariable habit. Does he want to know why this tree has red berries, why that animal has brown stripes, why this bird utters its peculiar cry, where fire came from, why a constellation is grouped in one way or another, why his race of men differs from the whites--in all these, and in all other intellectual perplexities, the savage invents a story to solve the problem. Stories about the Origin of Death are, therefore, among the commonest fruits of the savage imagination. As those legends have been produced to meet the same want by persons in a very similar mental condition, it inevitably follows that they all resemble each other with considerable closeness. We need not conclude that all the myths we are about to examine came from a single original source, or were handed about--with flint arrow-heads, seeds, shells, beads, and weapons--in the course of savage commerce. Borrowing of this sort may--or, rather, must--explain many difficulties as to the diffusion of some myths. But the myths with which we are concerned now, the myths of the Origin of Death, might easily have been separately developed by simple and ignorant men seeking to discover an answer to the same problem.__


Why Men are Mortal

The myths of the Origin of Death fall into a few categories. In many legends of the lower races men are said to have become subject to mortality because they infringed some mystic prohibition or taboo of the sort which is common among untutored peoples. The apparently untrammelled Polynesian, or Australian, or African, is really the slave of countless traditions, which forbid him to eat this object or to touch that, or to speak to such and such a person, or to utter this or that word. Races in this curious state of ceremonial subjection often account for death as the punishment imposed for breaking some taboo. In other cases, death is said to have been caused by a sin of omission, not of commission. People who have a complicated and minute ritual (like so many of the lower races) persuade themselves that Death burst on the world when some passage of the ritual was first omitted, or when some custom was first infringed. Yet again, Death is fabled to have first claimed us for his victims in consequence of the erroneous delivery of a favourable message from some powerful supernatural being, or because of the failure of some enterprise which would have resulted in the overthrow of Death, or by virtue of a pact or covenant between Death and the gods. Thus it will be seen that death is often (though by no means invariably) the penalty of infringing a command, or of indulging in a culpable curiosity. But there are cases, as we shall see, in which death, as a tolerably general law, follows on a mere accident. Some one is accidentally killed, and this 'gives Death a lead' (as they say in the hunting-field) over the fence which had hitherto severed him from the world of living men. It is to be observed in this connection that the first of men who died is usually regarded as the discoverer of a hitherto 'unknown country,' the land beyond the grave, to which all future men must follow him. Bin dir Woor, among the Australians, was the first man who suffered death, and he (like Yama in the Vedic myth) became the Columbus of the new world of the dead.


Savage Death-Myths

Let us now examine in detail a few of the savage stories of the Origin of Death. That told by the Australians may be regarded with suspicion, as a refraction from a careless hearing of the narrative in Genesis. The legend printed by Mr. Brough Smyth {183a} was told to Mr. Bulwer by 'a black fellow far from sharp,' and this black fellow may conceivably have distorted what his tribe had heard from a missionary. This sort of refraction is not uncommon, and we must always guard ourselves against being deceived by a savage corruption of a Biblical narrative. Here is the myth, such as it is:--'The first created man and woman were told' (by whom we do not learn) 'not to go near a certain tree in which a bat lived. The bat was not to be disturbed. One day, however, the woman was gathering firewood, and she went near the tree. The bat flew away, and after that came Death.' More evidently genuine is the following legend of how Death 'got a lead' into the Australian world. 'The child of the first man was wounded. If his parents could heal him, Death would never enter the world. They failed. Death came.' The wound in this legend was inflicted by a supernatural being. Here Death acts on the principle ce n'est que le premier pas qui coute, and the premier pas was made easy for him. We may continue to examine the stories which account for death as the result of breaking a taboo. The Ningphos of Bengal say they were originally immortal. {183b} They were forbidden to bathe in a certain pool of water. Some one, greatly daring, bathed, and ever since Ningphos have been subject to death. The infringement, not of a taboo, but of a custom, caused death in one of the many Melanesian myths on this subject. Men and women had been practically deathless because they cast their old skins at certain intervals; but a grandmother had a favourite grandchild who failed to recognise her when she appeared as a young woman in her new skin. With fatal good-nature the grandmother put on her old skin again, and instantly men lost the art of skin-shifting, and Death finally seized them. {184}


The Greek Myth

The Greek myth of the Origin of Death is the most important of those which turn on the breaking of a prohibition. The story has unfortunately become greatly confused in the various poetical forms which have reached us. As far as can be ascertained, death was regarded in one early Greek myth as the punishment of indulgence in forbidden curiosity. Men appear to have been free from death before the quarrel between Zeus and Prometheus. In consequence of this quarrel Hephaestus fashioned a woman out of earth and water, and gave her to Epimetheus, the brother of the Titan. Prometheus had forbidden his brother to accept any gift from the gods, but the bride was welcomed nevertheless. She brought her tabooed coffer: this was opened; and men--who, according to Hesiod, had hitherto lived exempt from 'maladies that bring down Fate'--were overwhelmed with the 'diseases that stalk abroad by night and day.' Now, in Hesiod (Works and Days, 70-100) there is nothing said about unholy curiosity. Pandora simply opened her casket and scattered its fatal contents. But Philodemus assures us that, according to a variant of the myth, it was Epimetheus who opened the forbidden coffer, whence came Death.

Leaving the myths which turn on the breaking of a taboo, and reserving for consideration the New Zealand story, in which the Origin of Death is the neglect of a ritual process, let us look at some African myths of the Origin of Death. It is to be observed that in these (as in all the myths of the most backward races) many of the characters are not gods, but animals.

The Bushman story lacks the beginning. The mother of the little Hare was lying dead, but we do not know how she came to die. The Moon then struck the little Hare on the lip, cutting it open, and saying, 'Cry loudly, for your mother will not return, as I do, but is quite dead.' In another version the Moon promises that the old Hare shall return to life, but the little Hare is sceptical, and is hit in the mouth as before. The Hottentot myth makes the Moon send the Hare to men with the message that they will revive as he (the Moon) does. But the Hare 'loses his memory as he runs' (to quote the French proverb, which may be based on a form of this very tale), and the messenger brings the tidings that men shall surely die and never revive. The angry Moon then burns a hole in the Hare's mouth. In yet another Hottentot version the Hare's failure to deliver the message correctly caused the death of the Moon's mother (Bleek, Bushman Folklore). {185} Compare Sir James Alexander's Expedition, ii. 250, where the Namaquas tell this tale. The Fijians say that the Moon wished men to die and be born again, like herself. The Rat said, 'No, let them die, like rats;' and they do. {186}__


The Serpent

In this last variant we have death as the result of a failure or transgression. Among the more backward natives of South India (Lewin's Wild Races of South India) the serpent is concerned, in a suspicious way, with the Origin of Death. The following legend might so easily arise from a confused understanding of the Mohammedan or Biblical narrative that it is of little value for our purpose. At the same time, even if it is only an adaptation, it shows the characteristics of the adapting mind:--God had made the world, trees, and reptiles, and then set to work to make man out of clay. A serpent came and devoured the still inanimate clay images while God slept. The serpent still comes and bites us all, and the end is death. If God never slept, there would be no death. The snake carries us off while God is asleep. But the oddest part of this myth remains. Not being able always to keep awake, God made a dog to drive away the snake by barking. And that is why dogs always howl when men are at the point of death. Here we have our own rural superstition about howling dogs twisted into a South Indian myth of the Origin of Death. The introduction of Death by a pure accident recurs in a myth of Central Africa reported by Mr. Duff Macdonald. There was a time when the man blessed by Sancho Panza had not yet 'invented sleep.' A woman it was who came and offered to instruct two men in the still novel art of sleeping. 'She held the nostrils of one, and he never awoke at all,' and since then the art of dying has been facile.


Dualistic Myths

A not unnatural theory of the Origin of Death is illustrated by a myth from Pentecost Island and a Red Indian myth. In the legends of very many races we find the attempt to account for the Origin of Death and Evil by a simple dualistic myth. There were two brothers who made things; one made things well, the other made them ill. In Pentecost Island it was Tagar who made things well, and he appointed that men should die for five days only, and live again. But the malevolent Suque caused men 'to die right out.' {187} The Red Indian legend of the same character is printed in the Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology (1879-80), p. 45. The younger of the Cin-au-av brothers, who were wolves, said, 'When a man dies, send him back in the morning and let all his friends rejoice.' 'Not so,' said the elder; 'the dead shall return no more.' So the younger brother slew the child of the elder, and this was the beginning of death.


Economic Myth

There is another and a very quaint myth of the Origin of Death in Banks Island. At first, in Banks Island, as elsewhere, men were immortal. The economical results were just what might have been expected. Property became concentrated in the hands of the few--that is, of the first generations--while all the younger people were practically paupers. To heal the disastrous social malady, Qat (the maker of things, who was more or less a spider) sent for Mate--that is, Death. Death lived near a volcanic crater of a mountain, where there is now a by-way into Hades--or Panoi, as the Melanesians call it. Death came, and went through the empty forms of a funeral feast for himself. Tangaro the Fool was sent to watch Mate, and to see by what way he returned to Hades, that men might avoid that path in future. Now when Mate fled to his own place, this great fool Tangaro noticed the path, but forgot which it was, and pointed it out to men under the impression that it was the road to the upper, not to the under, world. Ever since that day men have been constrained to follow Mate's path to Panoi and the dead. {188} Another myth is somewhat different, but, like this one, attributes death to the imbecility of Tangaro the Fool.


Maui and Yama

The New Zealand myth of the Origin of Death is pretty well known, as Dr. Tylor has seen in it the remnants of a solar myth, and has given it a 'solar' explanation. It is an audacious thing to differ from so cautious and learned an anthropologist as Dr. Tylor, but I venture to give my reasons for dissenting in this case from the view of the author of Primitive Culture (i. 335). Maui is the great hero of Maori mythology. He was not precisely a god, still less was he one of the early elemental gods, yet we can scarcely regard him as a man. He rather answers to one of the race of Titans, and especially to Prometheus, the son of a Titan. Maui was prematurely born, and his mother thought the child would be no credit to her already numerous and promising family. She therefore (as native women too often did in the South-Sea Islands) tied him up in her long tresses and tossed him out to sea. The gales brought him back to shore: one of his grandparents carried him home, and he became much the most illustrious and successful of his household. So far Maui had the luck which so commonly attends the youngest and least-considered child in folklore and mythology. This feature in his myth may be a result of the very widespread custom of jungsten Recht (Borough English), by which the youngest child is heir at least of the family hearth. Now, unluckily, at the baptism of Maui (for a pagan form of baptism is a Maori ceremony) his father omitted some of the Karakias, or ritual utterances proper to be used on such occasions. This was the fatal original mistake whence came man's liability to death, for hitherto men had been immortal. So far, what is there 'solar' about Maui? Who are the sun's brethren?--and Maui had many. How could the sun catch the sun in a snare, and beat him so as to make him lame? This was one of Maui's feats, for he meant to prevent the sun from running too fast through the sky. Maui brought fire, indeed, from the under-world, as Prometheus stole it from the upper-world; but many men and many beasts do as much as the myths of the world, and it is hard to see how the exploit gives Maui 'a solar character.' Maui invented barbs for hooks, and other appurtenances of early civilisation, with which the sun has no more to do than with patent safety-matches. His last feat was to attempt to secure human immortality for ever. There are various legends on this subject.


Maui Myths

Some say Maui noticed that the sun and moon rose again from their daily death, by virtue of a fountain in Hades (Hine-nui-te-po) where they bathed. Others say he wished to kill Hine-nui-te-po (conceived of as a woman) and to carry off her heart. Whatever the reason, Maui was to be swallowed up in the giant frame of Hades, or Night, and, if he escaped alive, Death would never have power over men. He made the desperate adventure, and would have succeeded but for the folly of one of the birds which accompanied him. This little bird, which sings at sunset, burst out laughing inopportunely, wakened Hine-nui-te-po, and she crushed to death Maui and all hopes of earthly immortality. Had he only come forth alive, men would have been deathless. Now, except that the bird which laughed sings at sunset, what is there 'solar' in all this? The sun does daily what Maui failed to do, {190a} passes through darkness and death back into light and life. Not only does the sun daily succeed where Maui failed, but it was his observation of this fact which encouraged Maui to risk the adventure. If Maui were the sun, we should all be immortal, for Maui's ordeal is daily achieved by the sun. But Dr. Tylor says: {190b} 'It is seldom that solar characteristics are more distinctly marked in the several details of a myth than they are here.' To us the characteristics seem to be precisely the reverse of solar. Throughout the cycle of Maui he is constantly set in direct opposition to the sun, and the very point of the final legend is that what the sun could do Maui could not. Literally the one common point between Maui and the sun is that the little bird, the tiwakawaka, which sings at the daily death of day, sang at the eternal death of Maui.

Without pausing to consider the Tongan myth of the Origin of Death, we may go on to investigate the legends of the Aryan races. According to the Satapatha Brahmana, Death was made, like the gods and other creatures, by a being named Prajapati. Now of Prajapati, half was mortal, half was immortal. With his mortal half he feared Death, and concealed himself from Death in earth and water. Death said to the gods, 'What hath become of him who created us?' They answered, 'Fearing thee, hath he entered the earth.' The gods and Prajapati now freed themselves from the dominion of Death by celebrating an enormous number of sacrifices. Death was chagrined by their escape from the 'nets and clubs' which he carries in the Aitareya Brahmana. 'As you have escaped me, so will men also escape,' he grumbled. The gods appeased him by the promise that, in the body, no man henceforth for ever should evade Death. 'Every one who is to become immortal shall do so by first parting with his body.'



Among the Aryans of India, as we have already seen, Death has a protomartyr, Tama, 'the first of men who reached the river, spying out a path for many.' In spying the path Yama corresponds to Tangaro the Fool, in the myth of the Solomon Islands. But Yama is not regarded as a maleficent being, like Tangaro. The Rig Veda (x. 14) speaks of him as 'King Yama, who departed to the mighty streams and sought out a road for many;' and again, the Atharva Veda names him 'the first of men who died, and the first who departed to the celestial world.' With him the Blessed Fathers dwell for ever in happiness. Mr. Max Muller, as we said, takes Yama to be 'a character suggested by the setting sun'--a claim which is also put forward, as we have seen, for the Maori hero Maui. It is Yama, according to the Rig Veda, who sends the birds--a pigeon is one of his messengers (compare the White Bird of the Oxenhams)--as warnings of approaching death. Among the Iranian race, Yima appears to have been the counterpart of the Vedic Yama. He is now King of the Blessed; originally he was the first of men over whom Death won his earliest victory.



That Yama is mixed up with the sun, in the Rig Veda, seems certain enough. Most phenomena, most gods, shade into each other in the Vedic hymns. But it is plain that the conception of a 'first man who died' is as common to many races as it is natural. Death was regarded as unnatural, yet here it is among us. How did it come? By somebody dying first, and establishing a bad precedent. But need that somebody have been originally the sun, as Mr. Max Muller and Dr. Tylor think in the cases of Yama and Maui? This is a point on which we may remain in doubt, for death in itself was certain to challenge inquiry among savage philosophers, and to be explained by a human rather than by a solar myth. Human, too, rather than a result of 'disease of language' is, probably, the myth of the Fire-stealer.


The Stealing of Fire

The world-wide myth explaining how man first became possessed of fire--namely, by stealing it--might well serve as a touchstone of the philological and anthropological methods. To Mr. Max Muller the interest of the story will certainly consist in discovering connections between Greek and Sanskrit names of fire-gods and of fire bringing heroes. He will not compare the fire-myths of other races all over the world, nor will he even try to explain why--in almost all of these myths we find a thief of fire, a Fire-stealer. This does not seem satisfactory to the anthropologist, whose first curiosity is to know why fire is everywhere said to have been obtained for men by sly theft or 'flat burglary.' Of course it is obvious that a myth found in Australia and America cannot possibly be the result of disease of Aryan languages not spoken in those two continents. The myth of fire-stealing must necessarily have some other origin.


'Fire Totems'

Mr. Max Muller, after a treatise on Agni and other fire-gods, consecrates two pages to 'Fire Totems.' 'If we are assured that there are some dark points left, and that these might be illustrated and rendered more intelligible by what are called fire totems among the Red Indians of North America, let us have as much light as we can get' (ii. 804). Alas! I never heard of fire totems before. Probably some one has been writing about them, somewhere, unless we owe them to Mr. Max Muller's own researches. Of course, he cites no authority for his fire totems. 'The fire totem, we are told, would thus naturally have become the god of the Indians.' 'We are told'--where, and by whom? Not a hint is given on the subject, so we must leave the doctrine of fire totems to its mysterious discoverer. 'If others prefer to call Prometheus a fire totem, no one would object, if only it would help us to a better understanding of Prometheus' (ii. 810). Who are the 'others' who speak of a Greek 'culture-hero' by the impossibly fantastic name of 'a fire totem'?



Mr. Max Muller 'follows Kuhn' in his explanation of Prometheus, the Fire- stealer, but he does not follow him all the way. Kuhn tried to account for the myth that Prometheus stole fire, and Mr. Max Muller does not try. {194} Kuhn connects Prometheus with the Sanskrit pramantha, the stick used in producing fire by drilling a pointed into a flat piece of wood. The Greeks, of course, made Prometheus mean 'foresighted,' providens; but let it be granted that the Germans know better. Pramantha next is associated with the verb mathnami, 'to rub or grind;' and that, again, with Greek [Greek], 'to learn.' We too talk of a student as a 'grinder,' by a coincidence. The root manth likewise means 'to rob;' and we can see in English how a fire-stick, a 'fire-rubber,' might become a 'fire-robber,' a stealer of fire. A somewhat similar confusion in old Aryan languages converted the fire-stick into a person, the thief of fire, Prometheus; while a Greek misunderstanding gave to Prometheus (pramantha, 'fire-stick') the meaning of 'foresighted,' with the word for prudent foresight, [Greek]. This, roughly stated, is the view of Kuhn. {195a} Mr. Max Muller concludes that Prometheus, the producer of fire, is also the fire-god, a representative of Agni, and necessarily 'of the inevitable Dawn'--'of Agni as the deus matutinus, a frequent character of the Vedic Agni, the Agni aushasa, or the daybreak' (ii. 813).

But Mr. Max Muller does not say one word about Prometheus as the Fire- stealer. Now, that he stole fire is of the essence of his myth; and this myth of the original procuring of fire by theft occurs all over the world. As Australian and American savages cannot conceivably have derived the myth of fire-stealing from the root manth and its double sense of stealing and rubbing, there must be some other explanation. But this fact could not occur to comparative mythologists who did not compare, probably did not even know, similar myths wherever found.


Savage Myths of Fire-stealing

In La Mythologie (pp. 185-195) I have put together a small collection of savage myths of the theft of fire. {195b} Our text is the line of Hesiod (Theogony, 566), 'Prometheus stole the far-seen ray of unwearied fire in a hollow stalk of fennel.' The same stalk is still used in the Greek isles for carrying fire, as it was of old--whence no doubt this feature of the myth. {195c} How did Prometheus steal fire? Some say from the altar of Zeus, others that he lit his rod at the sun. {196a} The Australians have the same fable; fire was obtained by a black fellow who climbed by a rope to the sun. Again, in Australia fire was the possession of two women alone. A man induced them to turn their backs, and stole fire. A very curious version of the myth occurs in an excellent book by Mrs. Langloh Parker. {196b} There was no fire when Rootoolgar, the crane, married Gooner, the kangaroo rat. Rootoolgar, idly rubbing two sticks together, discovered the art of fire-making. 'This we will keep secret,' they said, 'from all the tribes.' A fire- stick they carried about in their comebee. The tribes of the Bush discovered the secret, and the fire-stick was stolen by Reeargar, the hawk. We shall be told, of course, that the hawk is the lightning, or the Dawn. But in this savage Jungle Book all the characters are animals, and Reeargar is no more the Dawn than is the kangaroo rat. In savage myths animals, not men, play the leading roles, and the fire-stealing bird or beast is found among many widely scattered races. In Normandy the wren is the fire-bringer. {196c} A bird brings fire in the Andaman Isles. {196d} Among the Ahts a fish owned fire; other beasts stole it. The raven hero of the Thlinkeets, Yehl, stole fire. Among the Cahrocs two old women possessed it, and it was stolen by the coyote. Are these theftuous birds and beasts to be explained as Fire-gods? Probably not. Will any philologist aver that in Cahroc, Thlinkeet. Australian, Andaman, and so forth, the word for 'rub' resembled the word for 'rob,' and so produced by 'a disease of language' the myth of the Fire-stealer?


Origin of the Myth of Fire-stealing

The myth arose from the nature of savage ideas, not from unconscious puns. Even in a race so civilised as the Homeric Greeks, to make fire was no easy task. Homer speaks of a man, in a lonely upland hut, who carefully keeps the embers alive, that he may not have to go far afield in search of the seed of fire. {197} Obviously he had no ready means of striking a light. Suppose, then, that an early savage loses his seed of fire. His nearest neighbours, far enough off, may be hostile. If he wants fire, as they will not give it, he must steal it, just as he must steal a wife. People in this condition would readily believe, like the Australian blacks, that the original discoverers or possessors of a secret so valuable as fire would not give it away, that others who wanted it would be obliged to get it by theft. In Greece, in a civilised race, this very natural old idea survives, though fire is not the possession of a crane, or of an old woman, but of the gods, and is stolen, not by a hawk or a coyote, but by Prometheus, the culture-hero and demiurge. Whether his name 'Foresighted' is a mistaken folk-etymology from the root manth, or not, we have, in the ancient inevitable idea, that the original patentees of fire would not willingly part with their treasure, the obvious origin of the myth of the Fire-stealer. And this theory does not leave the analogous savage myths of fire-stealing unexplained and out in the cold, as does the philological hypothesis. {198} In this last instance, as in others, the origin of a world-wide myth is found, not in a 'disease of language,' but in a form of thought still natural. If a foreign power wants what answers among us to the exclusive possession of fire, or wants the secret of its rival's new explosive, it has to steal it. _


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